I recently wrote a short article for Fox News Opinion concerning the news/controversy surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
Here’s a link to the story in case you missed it:
I recently wrote a short article for Fox News Opinion concerning the news/controversy surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
Here’s a link to the story in case you missed it:
A big part of my duties around the house involves taking care of those things everyone else finds objectionable. Getting rid of any creepy-crawly beyond the size of a fly? My territory. Also most accidental discharges by the dog. I’m the Poop and Pee guy.
I am also, as it turns out, The One Who Gets The Clothes Off The Line When They’ve Been Forgotten And It’s Close To Midnight guy, which is what I’m doing now. It’s a new one for me, and one that never would have happened if my wife hadn’t gotten up a little bit ago and glanced through the window into the backyard.
Can’t leave the clothes on the line, she said. The dew would get them by morning; she’d have to wash them again.
Both of the kids were in bed, though I’ll add that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they’d been awake. My daughter is thirteen and my son is eleven (going on twenty), but neither one of them do the dark. Nor, for that matter, does my wife. She said she would be happy to take the clothes off the line. All I had to do was stand guard at the backdoor.
She’s standing at the backdoor now. Keeping watch, I suppose. You’re asking what exactly my wife is keeping watch for? Well, I suppose it’s any number of things. Our neighborhood is large (too large, if you’d like my opinion), but our house abuts thirty thousand acres of woods and mountains that served as the inspiration for a place called Happy Hollow in my books. Talk to many around here, they’ll warn you away from those woods at night. There are stories. But aside from tales of ghosts and unknown beasts, there really are things around here that creep in the night and are best left alone. Our neighbors woke one morning not long ago to find a bear on their front porch. I’ve killed too many copperheads in our creek. So, yeah. Maybe that’s why my wife’s standing on the other side of the screen while I take down these clothes.
I told her there’s no need to watch. She knows that. She also knows the dark doesn’t bother me, that in fact I’ve come to find a feeling in it that, while not comfort, is something akin to it. I don’t mind the dark. That’s when I can see the stars.
They’re out here tonight, right over my head. Bits of light tossed into the sky like millions of tiny dice, planets and suns and a band of the Milky Way all keeping time to some celestial music that beats not in the ears but the heart.
Growing up, I learned to pray in the dark. I’d go outside every night and look up at the sky, and if there were stars I’d start talking. If there weren’t, I’d just listen. I learned a lot that way. It’s highly recommended.
Almost done. Half the clothes are off now. I pull the pins away and put the pins in the cloth sack hung on the line, fold each article of clothing and place it in the basket. I’m assuming my wife is telling me to hurry up. I don’t, even though there’s something in the bush nearby. Maybe a possum. Or a rabbit. Too small to be a bear. Could be one of those adolescent Bigfoots I heard about a few weeks ago. Seems a guy was fishing out in the woods and came across an entire family. Swears it, and never mind that he was drunk off his rocker at the time. Probably isn’t one of those in my bush, but I still catch myself wondering what I’d do if it was. Talk about a story.
Speaking of which, I had someone last week ask me why my stories had gotten darker as the years have trundled on. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I suppose they have (The Curse of Crow Hollow will be out in less than two months, and it’s both my best so far and a far, far cry from my first novel), but I can’t really speak as to why that’s the case. I suppose if I had to, I’d say it’s just me getting back to my roots. My kin have long told stories about those caught along the thin line that stretches between worlds, and the darkness that lurks both there and inside the human heart. Besides, it’s light that I really want to write about. Where better to see that light than in a bit of darkness?
And really, we’re all living in a kind of darkness, don’t you think? This great world we inhabit, all the fancy toys we carry with us and all the knowledge we possess, doesn’t change the fact that there are dangers everywhere, hungry things lurking about, and whether it’s cancer or terrorism or crime or simply the slow winding down of life, those things are always close. That’s what makes living such a hard thing, and what makes all of us so courageous.
There, done. The last pair of jeans, the final T shirt. My wife can go to bed now knowing there won’t be any clothes to wash again in the morning. I take the basket and make my way to the porch, casting one last look at all those stars. Pausing to say Thanks, for everything. At the door, I catch a glimpse of two glowing eyes from the bush. And you know what? I say thanks for that, too.
I’m not sure how long I’ve carried this picture, tucked inside the little notebook I keep in my back pocket. I no longer remember where I first stumbled upon it, or how, or the number of copies I’ve worn out by unfolding it and folding it again whenever I need the reminder. It’s served me well over the years. Kept me going. When you have a dream that sometimes feels close enough to embrace as fact and other times feels so far that it seems the two of you will always be destined as strangers, keeping on becomes the hardest thing and the most important. Victor Hugo once said that each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet. I would imagine that sentiment applies to women equally. The picture at the top of this post is a reminder of my own future hour. It makes me see that I’m not alone in what dreams I have. There are others out there—you, perhaps—whose aim in life reaches high. There always have been.
The picture was taken in 1961, at a place called the Aldershot Club. Where the club was (or remains), I cannot tell you. I suppose it’s enough to say it wasn’t a very popular place with the day’s younger folk, or perhaps it was the club’s entertainment that night wasn’t enough to draw a larger crowd. According to the note I scrawled on the back, a total of eighteen people spent that night dancing. I would imagine few of those cared to admit they were in attendance after the fact. It does seem to me, though, that they’re all enjoying themselves. I’ve often though that despite it all, that’s the most important thing.
Look close enough, you can make out three-and-a-half of the four faces on the stage—singer, guitarist and bass player, and part of the drummer. I doubt the photographer intended to make such a strong point in leaving the band to the shadows, but the result is poetic in a way and not at all ironic. Those four were surely in the shadows, lost among a sea of other bands with aspirations just as lofty. They are too far away for me to gauge their expressions. I like to imagine them fully involved in their music, feeling each note as it courses through with a precision that indicates not only inherent talent, but unending practice.
That’s how we all start out, don’t we? Doesn’t matter if your goal is to be a musician or a writer or a professional _______, this picture represents the beginning. Obscurity and under-appreciation. Playing to a crowd that barely reaches double digits or writing novels or short stories or blog posts read by about the same number of people. We toil under the assumption—the hope—that it won’t always be this way, that the hour Victor Hugo expressed when fact meets dream will surely come. We do this even as the inner critic, that realist to counter an almost holy optimism, shouts that you and I are only two of many, that our dreams are no less than the dreams of billions more, and how is it that we are so special to warrant fulfillment? Ours is a hard world, after all. Often enough, the goal becomes not to rise above but merely not to sink. Forget about overcoming, sometimes all we can hope for is to simply get by.
Worse, if we are strong enough to dream we must also be courageous enough to admit that dream rarely, if ever, truly arrives. A part of us already knows that no matter how tall the mountain we climb, at its peak will lie another, taller one in the distance. That is the cost demanded of those led beyond the doors of a boring life, an existence frittered away with passionless work, the only light a coming weekend or those seven summer days of vacation. There is an allure to the life of the masses that the life of a dreamer cannot match: that sense of being settled—that, good or bad, this is how you will spend your remaining days. It is a rut, no doubt, but at least one that is straight and relatively smooth and travels over no mountains.
I wonder, looking at this picture, if the four men on the stage are thinking about a life in one of those ruts. The men and women on the dance floor look happy enough. They are all perhaps married, all gainfully employed in jobs that offer steady pay to balance out mortgages and bills. A better life, perhaps, than that of an artist, living gig to gig and wondering if it will always be that way. Or maybe it is that those four men understand what many of us do—a life of settling hurts no less than a life of dreaming. Its pain is merely spread out, constant enough to dull us to it but there. We would hurt if we gave up just as we would if we keep going, because the world is made for bruising. That’s why I think in the end it doesn’t matter who chooses the ruts and who challenges the mountains. We are all extraordinary just by making it to the end of our lives. We all deserve a measure of rest after.
Maybe that’s what Paul is thinking. And John. And George and Ringo. Maybe they’re thinking that some people settle and some never do, and you put them both together and what comes out is music. Regardless, they kept on. And a year and a half later, the world would know the Beatles.
Maybe—just maybe—that’s you up on that stage. Standing away from and above the smattering of some crowd, vowing to play as if it were millions. If so, I say let’s keep on. Let’s play and sing and not grow weary. For there’s a mountain to climb, friend, and another on ahead.
I was only a boy when I learned of the witches, and the picture I’d formed in my mind—something akin to the marrying of the Wicked Witch of the West and the one from those Bugs Bunny cartoons—wasn’t the picture I ended up seeing along that mountain ridge. I saw no brooms or bubbling cauldrons gathered about that shack, only a few drying possum skins and a column of gray smoke from the chimney, an overturned metal pail by the well. Could have been any old body’s shack, really. Except this one wasn’t. Witch lived there.
“Ain’t no witch,” I said. But I said it low and kept my head that way too, one eye and all my body behind a stout oak some fifty yards away. “That’s just some woman lives there.”
“Ain’t,” Jeffrey said. “Ever’body knows she’s a witch. My mama came up here onced for medicine. Daddy didn’t want her to but she did.”
“Witches don’t give medicine.”
“This one here does. Mama says she makes them in a room in there. Says she prays over all these plants and stuff.”
“Witches don’t pray.”
Jeffrey said, “This one here does.”
That was the first (and only, as it happened) time I visited Jeffrey’s house and the deep woods beyond it, the two of us fast friends that year of first grade, two country boys marooned at a Christian school in the city. Ours was a kinship born of place rather than blood. While the other boys would spend recess putting together Legos and learning the names of the disciples, Jeffrey and I would be out in the mud patch under the basketball goal, digging up worms with our hands. He’d invited me over that Saturday afternoon, saying he had a lot better worms in his yard and more mud too, plus maybe we could shoot his daddy’s .22. Turned out Jeffrey’s daddy was gone that day and the sun had scorched that soft mud to brown concrete. That’s when he asked me—Hey, you wanna see where a witch lives?
“Where’s she at?” I asked, leaning out a little from the tree.
“I don’t know. Daddy says sometimes she turned to a bird or a deer so you can’t tell. He says she’s watchin even when you don’t think she is.”
“Let’s go up there,” I said.
“No way. You wanna get cursed?”
“Ain’t no curse.”
Jeffrey said, “This one here, she’ll curse.”
I’d like to tell you I went on anyway, left that tree and marched right up to the door on that shack and knocked with neither fear nor trepidation. But I didn’t and neither did Jeffrey, because right after that a crow called from the trees and we ran. Ran all the way back and never stopped until we were locked inside Jeffrey’s little bedroom, and then we never spoke about no witch. I never went back. Not to Jeffrey’s, not to that stretch of ridge. To this day, that part of the mountain is one of the few places I’ve tread but once.
That memory is still fresh in my mind all these years later. I can’t remember the name of my fifth grade teacher or exactly whose house I egged when I was seventeen or where I left the keys to the truck this morning, but I can tell you how the sun beat on our backs that day and how the creek water felt like ice when we ran through it hollering and stumbling and that something—animal or witch—followed us through the trees the whole way back from that cabin. I know it.
There are stories here in the mountains, secret ones told by granddaddies on their porches at night when the crickets sing and the moon is high in a dark sky and a Mason jar is in their hands. Tales to make your skin goose up. The ones with demons and angels are good. Ghosts are better. The stories of the witches some say still hide in these hollers, they’re the best.
I guess that’s the biggest reason I decided to add to those best stories with a tale of my own. Not about two small boys that happen to strike the ire of a witch, but an entire town that does the same and what happens when that witch seeks her revenge. About the darkness in us all, and the light.
The Curse of Crow Hollow won’t be out until later this summer, but you have a chance at getting your own copy a bit earlier. I’ll even scrawl my name in it. All you have to do is follow this link and enter your name. Easy peasy.
In the meantime, you keep away from those witches.
I’ll say I’m a writer because I can’t speak. At least not well and not in front of large groups of people I do not know. I’ve done so anyway, and many times. And truthfully, I do just fine as long as I don’t count the “aint’s” and dropped g’s that come out of my mouth.
The invitation to speak that I received recently wasn’t one I could pass up. It wasn’t a fancy conference, wasn’t in a fancy city. It didn’t pay well (actually, it didn’t pay at all). It was instead for career day at the local elementary school.
It isn’t often that I get to play author, much less play one for an entire day. Despite the props I brought along—five books, a typed manuscript, and one bulging notebook—I knew it would be a rough road to travel. After all, I was going up against firemen and police officers and radio personalities. A writer would have a tough time competing with that with a bunch of grownups, much less a hundred fourth graders.
But as it turned out I didn’t have much to worry about at all. Sure, they were fourth graders—that peculiar brand of kid to which both reading and writing are anathema. So I started with the fact that when I was their age, I hated reading and writing, too.
It was all downhill from there.
I’m smart enough to know that kids aren’t much interested in publishers or first drafts or the horror that is the adverb, smart enough to know that adults aren’t much interested in them either. But I’ve found over the years that everyone, regardless of age or interest, perks up whenever I mention a writer’s primary gift to the world.
Not wisdom. Not inspiration. Not tight plots or moving themes or even memorable characters. No, writers do what they do because of one reason and one reason only—
They get to create magic.
They didn’t believe me, of course. Not right away. One kid asked me to make his pencil disappear if I knew magic. Another wanted me to guess the number she was thinking. I told them I couldn’t and that it didn’t matter, because the magic writers do was better. It was the greatest magic of all.
It was the magic of writing words down on a page that make pictures in other people’s minds.
It was the magic of being able to create entire worlds from scratch and put anything I wanted to in them.
It was the magic of being able to touch another person’s heart, a person who might live far away, someone you’ve never spoken to and likely will never meet.
And best of all, I told them, is that everyone possesses a bit of that magic. Anyone could be a writer. Didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, didn’t matter what color you were, didn’t even matter if you went to college or not. That magic was still in us.
It takes time, of course. All magic does. But I told them that if they did three simple things, that magic would grow and eventually spill out.
You have to read, I said. Every day.
And you have to write. Every day.
And most important of all, you have to believe you’re special. Because there is only one you in this world, and the way you see life is different than the way anyone else who’s ever lived has seen it. That’s why your story is so important. So needed. After all, that’s what the magic is for.
Turns out that an informal poll conducted by the teachers placed me second of the day’s top speakers. The winner was the radio guy. I wasn’t surprised. I can’t compete with someone who’s met Taylor Swift and Trace Adkins. I wouldn’t even try.
But a teacher told me that the next day when it came time for her class to do their journal writing, there was much less grumbling than usual. They were ready. Eager. When she asked why, her kids told her they wanted to make some magic.
I blame the writer in me for the messes I sometimes get myself into, all of which I tell myself were begun with the best of intentions. Label something as “research,” for instance, and a writer can give himself permission to do almost anything. “Education” is another good example. We should always be learning something, growing, both in mind and in heart: becoming both better and more.
That thought was running through my head several times over the course of the past couple of weeks, when I decided to sit down to watch three of the most celebrated television shows to have come along in a while. The writing is spectacular, I heard. The ideas immense. Deep characters. Deeper mysteries. All things that appeal to me in my own work. The best way to improve your own craft is to immerse yourself in the craft of others. That’s what I was thinking when I sat down to watch marathons of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.
If you’ve yet to see any of these shows or only a couple, I’ll say they are at their core the same thing: Broken people doing some very bad things. Their worlds could not be more dissimilar—the monotony of suburbia, a feudal Dark Age, the stark backwater of the south. And yet the view of each of those worlds is much the same in that each show portrays the world as ultimately meaningless and empty, therefore power is the only means to safety. The critics I’d read and the friends who had recommended those shows were indeed right. The writing really was spectacular, the ideas really were immense. The characters were layered. A few of the mysteries were nearly imponderable.
But still: yuck. After all of that, I needed a shower.
Here’s the thing, though: given bits and pieces of those shows, I don’t think it really would have been a problem. I’m no prude when it comes to entertainment; I’ll admit I sometimes enjoy my share of a gray worldview, though I’d much rather see it from my sofa than in my own life. But immersing yourself in it? Watching over and over until it seeps into the deepest places inside you? Well, that’s a different thing all together.
Yet that’s our culture now, isn’t it? There really doesn’t seem to be any hope out there, whether it’s in music or television or literature. There was maybe a time when the arts existed to prod society onward, to inspire and lift up. More often than not, they now serve as a mirror, showing what we’ve become in a series of melodies or flashing frames. Television, movies, music, and stories have grown increasingly dark because we’ve grown increasingly dark, not the other way around.
The other day, I came across an article written by a neuroscientist that affirmed much of what our mothers once told us: garbage in, garbage out. The article cautioned great care in the sorts of stories we allow ourselves to be exposed to, whether it’s the nightly news fare of war and recession and political meanness, or whatever slasher film is playing down at the local movie theater. Because those stories all carry meanings, and those meanings will, consciously or not, impact the way in which you view life and the world around you for good or bad. If you don’t know how to draw something positive out of what happens in life, the neural pathways you need too appreciate anything positive will never fire.
That’s evolution, the neuroscientist said. Maybe. I’d call it human nature.
It’s easy to succumb to the notion that everything is random, meaningless. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world is too big and too far gone to ever be able to make a difference in it. The key is not to rise above, but merely survive (which, by the way, is my theory of why the zombie culture is so prevalent now). What’s hard is to believe. What’s hard is to carry on. It is to find purpose in where you are and in what you’re doing, no matter how insignificant it seems. It is to find dignity in this thing we call life, and to bring beauty to it.